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As the name suggests, a GPS watch is made to pick up signals from GPS satellites that orbit the Earth. Much like a GPS that you would attach to the inside of your car, a GPS watch is a wearable piece of GPS equipment that you can carry around as it tracks your location.
But tracking your location is not its only function. Several statistics can be calculated from a GPS signal. For example, once a GPS watch picks up on your location, it can calculate the speed at which you are moving, your altitude, as well as where you are in the world. But a GPS watch will also do so much more than that. Built into the watch are several features that make your adventures and fitness activities much more streamlined and interesting.
There are many types of GPS watches on the market today. Each serves a different function based on its design features. The two most popular types of GPS watches are hiking watches and running watches.
Before we get into the differences between hiking and running GPS watches, let’s go over some of the main features of a GPS watch. These features are included in all good GPS watches.
Basic GPS watch features
Compass: A GPS watch will normally be able to tell you where you are on a Cardinal axis. However, this is just a rudimentary feature. Most GPS watches, particularly hiking watches, include a lot more directional capabilities such as keeping track of the routes that you have taken.
Barometer: The barometer that is built into the GPS watch will help detect the pressure in the air. Using these numbers, you can predict when inclement weather is approaching. This is an important feature in most cases since you will want to set up the rainfly on your tent and take cover if you know that rain is coming. And for all of you mountaineers, this is also important if you will be skiing or hiking around some snow since inclement weather can cause avalanches.
Altimeter: A GPS watch can detect your level of altitude relative to sea level. When you are climbing mountains or just going for a mountain hike, it is difficult to tell where you are if you are only using a map and a compass. A compass can only tell you where you are on a cardinal axis. But with an altimeter, you will be able to follow directions on a map when you are in elevated spots.
Thermometer: And last but not least, a thermometer is usually included in a GPS watch.
What is a hiking GPS watch?
A hiking GPS watch has all of the above as well as many more useful directional and fitness tracking related features. A hiking watch is different from a fitness watch because it is used by people who are going to be traveling longer distances and need a way to track where they are and where they have been.
For example, hikers will be able to save particular locations on the watch so that they can return to them at a later time. Unlike most fitness watches, a hiking watch has a built-in map tracing system where a line will it appear around the areas where you have been.
Some hiking GPS watches have even more specific functions. For example, some will display fishing and hunting statistics for a particular location. Some will keep you updated for avalanche warnings and weather warnings. Some of them display sunset and sunrise times. This works by setting your watch to a particular time zone. As you move across the world, it will keep track of where you are and adjust the time accordingly.
What is a running GPS watch?
A running GPS watch picks up the same GPS satellite signals as a hiking GPS watch. However, the calculations that are made using the GPS locations are slightly different in the sense that they help you track your fitness goals. Moreover, running GPS watches include fitness tracking software which can be connected to Wi-Fi.
There are many external biofeedback equipment products that can be purchased along with a running GPS watch. For example, most are capable of calculating CrossFit goal achievements by using a heart monitor. Most do not have a heart sensor so heart monitors they are sold separately and can be connected to the watch. Running GPS watches can also be connected to an oxygen sensor as well as sensors that detect typical movements used in various sports such as swimming, cycling, and climbing.
Most popular GPS watches
Most popular GPS watch manufacturers have an excellent track record of making their customers happy due to the quality of their products. The most popular manufacturers among them are Garmin,Casio, Suunto, and FitBit. As with most products, you get what you pay for. What that usually means is that the higher the price, the higher the quality. Luckily, with GPS watches, it is not usually the quality that is sacrificed, but the amount of features.
You can get a better picture of what customers are saying about their GPS watches by looking at the Amazon reviews for each of the products featured below.
Below are some of the most popular GPS watches in production today. We have made a short list of hiking watches and running watches to give you a better idea what features are available for these types of products.
Hiking GPS watches
Garmin Fenix 3 GPS Watch
We have included the Fenix 3 GPS watch under the hiking GPS watch heading as it does have all of the features of a great hiking watch. However, it has all of the features included in an awesome running watch as well. Not surprisingly, it does have a higher price point than most GPS watches on the market.
Here is an overview of some of the features of the Fenix 3:
Compass, altimeter, and barometer
TracBack: Retrace your steps by using the TracBack routing feature. Save your destination spots along this route and share it with your friends and family via Wi-Fi.
GLONASS + GPS: Using the antenna included with the Fenix 3, you can pick up GPS signals that substitute GPS signals when they are either slow or not available. Readings are thus faster and more accurate.
Running Dynamics mode: You can use an external heart monitor such as the HRM-run monitor with the Fenix 3 and track specific statistics during your run sessions. You can track your ground contact time, isolation, and cadence. The Phoenix 3 will then run a report based on your goals and your progress.
Swim and ski-board mode: Like the Garmin Swim, the Feenix 3 can track your stroke pace and distance when in swim mode. When you tell if the size of your pool, it can track your progress as you work out. In ski-board mode, it counts the speed, distance and vertical drop of your skiing adventures and keeps track of your workout progress.
As you can see, if you were just hiking long distances, not all of these fitness features may apply to your particular needs. However, given the durability and scratch resistance of the Fenix 3 watch, it may be worth your while to purchase this for the long run (no pun intended).
Garmin Foretrex 401 Hiking GPS Watch
The Garmin Foretrex 401 watch is also made for hiking but it does not have all of the fitness features that the Feenix 3 does. In fact, it also has a lower price point. As you can see, it has a green military color which is a throwback to the fact that GPS watches were originally created for use in the military.
The Fortress 401 has a slim military band and the watch itself has an elongated look. This watch has been used by many military personnel while they are on duty overseas and has received many compliments from those customers. But this watch is also a great hunting and fishing tool, and it is perfect for the avid hiker.
Compass, altimeter, and barometer
Hunting and fishing data: The Fortress 401 displays hunting and fishing data according to your location.
TracBack: Like the Fenix 3, Garmin’s TracBack software is included in this watch. You can keep a history of the routes that you have taken while hiking and save important locations to go back to them later.
As mentioned above, the Fortress 401 does not have the fitness features that the Fenix 3 does. This means that it comes at a lower price point. But if you are going to be using this to fish in the woods or hike long distances without needing to track your workouts, The Fortress 401 does offer a great value and has many great customer reviews.
Running GPS watches
Garmin Forerunner 10 GPS Watch
The Garmin Forerunner 10 GPS watch comes at an attractive price point. As with the GPS watches above, it is one of the most popular GPS watches being sold on the market. If you are looking for a watch that will track your routes, this one may not be as useful as it will only track your fitness goals.
Fitness goal tracking: The Forerunner 10 will track your distance, speed, and calories burned. By using one of the many Garmin online platforms, you can download a fitness plan and watch as you meet your goals via the statistics that get generated on your GPS.
Saved run sessions: You can save the results of up to 7 run sessions and your history. Based on the run session statistics, the Forerunner 10 will then calculate how well you are meeting your goals and will generate a beep whenever you reach a milestone.
Social sharing: You can share your run session data with your friends and family via social media by connecting the Forerunner 10 to a Wi-Fi device and uploading your data. Garmin has an online community of like-minded people who are all working towards the same fitness goals and are willing to share their data to discuss the best ways of achieving them.
Fitbit Blaze Smart Fitness Watch
The Fitbit Blaze Smart Fitness GPS watch is different from the Forerunner 10 in that it has a heart monitor built into it as well as more complex fitness goal tracking features. It also has the ability to trace your roots, as with the hiking GPS watches. It is more expensive than the Forerunner 10, but as mentioned previously, you get what you pay for.
Heat monitor: Most running GPS watches don’t include a heart monitor. You need to purchase an external device to hook up to the watch for it to monitor your heart rate. However, the Fitbit Blaze has a pulse sensor in the back of the device; no need to purchase a monitor separately. You can set your fitness goals and the Fitbit Blaze will let you know once you have achieved them based on your heart rate, speed and distance.
Track multiple sports: Whether you are running, swimming, biking, or climbing, the Fitbit Blaze will be able to track your progress based on your sport’s particular movements.
Retrace your steps: Although the Forerunner 10 is more of a fitness tracking watch, it does have the ability to track your routes. As with the Fenix 3, you can retrace your steps as well as save particular locations, such as your vehicle or camping site.
The above is by no means an exhaustive list of the best GPS watches available. Every year, new models come out and they will be featured here as they become popular.